Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Wild West Intarnets!

Around three decades ago, a new world opened up. It was the wild west, but no-one realised it.  Starting with computers and on to computer based communications systems (CBCSs) like bulletin boards, a whole ecosystem was born, modified by the inhabitants, and still evolves to this day.  Look, this gets all complicated and meta, so either bear with me or click another link for a few minutes, okay?

Nothing evolves by itself, it evolves with its environment.  And the environment is affected and changed by the organism.  Which causes further evolution of the organism.  In the case of humans, it has been said that our information and communication forms part of our evolution.  (Please note that there is also tacit acknowledgement of that organism/environment interaction evident, they even title it " . . . the planet has entered a new phase of evolution . . . ") I'll add "technology" to those evolution indicators.

Remember that all our technology is obtained from our environment.  The ideas may have come from our brains, but the material to make those ideas concrete was obtained from the environment.  So far, this follows pretty closely to my scenario - we evolve, get ideas, turn parts of our environment into the manifestation of our ideas, and those manifestations (and the lacunae created in the "natural" environment) become part of our new environment.  We evolve to be more fit to survive in the new environment.

So, the CBCSs and now the Internet have become a new part of our environment.  And we've already evolved tools to deal with this new environment, made changes to it, and to ourselves.  We've also brought with us a large dollop of the opportunism which got us to this point in the first place, the people who swindle and con and cheat and steal are now firmly ensconced in cyberspace and making their livings as they have always done, by taking it from the rest of us.

Now we come to the really tricky bit.  (And you thought we'd gotten past that hey?)

Let's say I work at writing for a living, articles and copy and so forth.  What I'm doing is not rocket science, and I sometimes feel like I'm taking money under false pretenses for something I enjoy doing and can't imagine being difficult for anyone.  So am I a con-artist or working for an honest wage?  It's a job in the online ecosystem, after all.

Now let's ratchet that up a notch.  Suppose I write a really lousy piece, but convince my patron to pay me an ultra-premium rate for it. Now am I a thief, or just a person who writes really well and gets along well in the ecosystem?  What about if the person I sell my article to for a pittance, on-sells that article to a large organisation for millions of dollars?  Are they a con, exploiting me, exploiting the large organisation, or just good businessmen?  And suppose someone helps themselves to the text, sitting there on my hard drive, and then on-sells it to that large organisation?  What are they?  Suppose they get their million dollars for my article, and anonymously pay me twenty dollars, which is twice what the agent might have paid me?

See?  the only difference between a thief and a businessman is the office.  Only now, online, there's even less of a difference between the thief and the businessman.  It kind of begs a question or two about this new online environment, doesn't it?

Well, firstly, crime as a business has pretty much evolved at the same rate as business has, no matter if that was robber barons vis a vis dukes, pirates as contrasted to merchant shipping, terrorists vs military, Mafia vs business, bikies and police.  Being surprised that online criminals have business training and do risk analyses is a bit of a comic relief, really.  I'd venture to say that at the head of any cyber crime outfit you care to trace, there will be a business-suited person at the head somewhere.

We're stuck, because actually, either side is a valid means of surviving, either side of the equation equals staying alive.  One way is a bit less sociopathic, it's true, but survival is a tricky thing, do you consider yourself successful if you perish but your two offspring survive, or is success measured by personally staying alive to generate lot of offspring, but maybe conning some of them out of their living?

Online, is it reasonable to expect "someone" to pursue and prosecute "criminals" much as has been happening in the real world?  And how much good has that prosecution done in the real world?  Are police effective?  Or is it true, as some wit once said something like "a police force is an army that you turn on your own population?"  (And no, I don't remember the precise quote or whose it is.)

My point is that we've already evolved to adapt to the new environment; we have people to whom the question "what's on the TV?" will trigger reaching for their 3G cellphone rather than look for a paper or TV guide.  When someone asks me what he weather will be, I go to www.wunderground.com and open my favourites.  If someone asks me a question, my first thought isn't "library!" - it's "google it!"

Invite people over for an impromptu dinner and movie?  SMS them, or post on their wall.  These are the evolved.  How are they affecting this online environment?  Well, they create new killer sites, introduce other people to those sites, and then move on when the environment is full of newbies and oldies...

The equation is - 200-300 years ago, a family would move into an environment, and alter a chunk of it to provide them with sustenance.  Built that log cabin from the trees in the environment, levelled some of the land and grew crops and ran livestock.  In time, the environment changed to include people who'd adapted to the next stage of this evolution, large farms with controlled environments, to provide for the towns and cities.

Now we've created computers from natural resources, then connected those together using energy from natural resources, then created internets and LANs from that.  At each stage, we're using one form of resources and converting them to another form.

Even on today's quite stringently managed farms, the original occupiers of that environment keep popping up, from bacteria and fungi to large animals.  What worries me and will keep me looking over my virtual shoulder for a long time yet, is the native wildlife online - who knows what business-suited native critters will appear on the Internet when it evolves a bit more?

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